Jay-Z on ‘Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story’ and Activism

Posted July 29, 2018 2:36 p.m. EDT
Updated July 29, 2018 2:42 p.m. EDT

In the six-part docuseries “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story,” filmmakers Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason recount the teenager’s life and his deadly encounter with George Zimmerman in a gated town house community outside Orlando, Florida. Through interviews with key players, including Martin’s family and Mark O’Mara, the lead defense lawyer for Zimmerman, the directors zero in on what they see as a flawed criminal justice system. They also make an argument that the divisive case (in which Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter) galvanized both the Black Lives Matter movement and white nationalists.

The filmmakers and Martin’s parents hope “Rest in Power,” which debuts Monday on the Paramount Network and BET, moves Martin beyond the realm of symbolism and demonstrates the costs of ignoring these issues. “I hope people walk away knowing who Trayvon Martin really was,” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, said.

“I want people to walk away having a clear view of what this country is about right now, and not what they thought it is,” she added.

The docu-series was first announced in early 2017 as part of a production partnership between Jay-Z and The Weinstein Co. But The Weinstein Co. and Harvey Weinstein have been scrubbed from the credits of “Rest in Power” since the publication of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Weinstein in The New York Times and The New Yorker last year. (The company did not have editorial input on the series, according to Paramount, which said it “owns and financed the project” in full. Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, have said that The Weinstein Co. owes them money for the rights to their book, which served as source material for the documentary.)

Before the second leg of his “On the Run II” tour kicked off in Cleveland, I spoke by phone with Jay-Z (who uses his real name, Shawn Carter, for projects outside music) about the series and how his views on celebrity activism have shifted. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: The documentary makes a case for viewing Trayvon Martin’s death and the Zimmerman verdict as a turning point that galvanized progressive political activists and white supremacists alike. Did it help spark your own desire to be more publicly outspoken about politics?

A: I wouldn’t use that as the catalyst. So many things have been going on and the whole climate in America has changed again. I mean, obviously, I think it was the pendulum swinging back from Obama being president. I feel like it was festering and I think the Obama administration just brought those frustrations to another place where people can spread the propaganda of hate.

Also, on the flip side, we’re looking at people who, in areas like Middle America, were not really taken care of. You know? They vote for Democrats because their parents voted Democrat and America was a different place at that time. The middle class was allowed to thrive and there was steel in Indiana and the car jobs in Detroit and all these places where these factories were to provide a way for you to start somewhere in low income, get middle class and then maybe end up with the house of your dreams. This was the American dream and it was real. Then that America changed and no one addressed that.

There are a lot of things going on that lead to these sorts of films, these docs that I’m creating now. It’s more of an education, because it’s so egregious that people don’t believe it.

People have to really see this. They have to see it again and they have to see it with facts and details, because people don’t really believe it. Until the world believes it and everyone gets involved, it’s going to be a black problem.

I think people have been able to hide behind, “He must’ve been out there doing something.” “He had a hoodie on.” I’m not talking about people who have this preconceived notion of black people as robbers bad. I’m talking about good people who’ve been able to hide behind the idea of, “No way that happened. Something had to be going on.”

Q: With the Kalief Browder documentary, about a teenager held at Rikers Island for three years without trial, you were hoping that it would change certain laws around solitary confinement for juveniles. Is the hope that something similar can happen with regard to the Stand Your Ground laws?

A: Yes, absolutely. Again, it’s an educational process. This law, we have to get people to understand what it says. Of course, he will not be found guilty. It’s very difficult to be found guilty with this law as it stands today.

The system doesn’t work as it exists today. No one wants to talk about that because it’s as if you are bashing police officers. I’m not bashing police officers. I’m just saying the facts do not support this being the answer, the system as it stands today.

Q: You had well-publicized disagreements with Harry Belafonte in the past about celebrity activism, and since then you have become more public about the things you’re doing in the community. Would you say that his criticisms guided you in any way?

A: That narrative that this is something new for me — I get it, I understand, because now you see my name on the doc. But I’ve been doing this for a long time.

The constitution of where I am from — from the streets of the Marcy Projects, it was a thing, where you would give someone something and never mention it. It’s crass, and it’s not cool.

So that was my foundation. My foundation was that of, let’s never talk about what we do for each other. It should be unspoken. I’m there for you, you’re there for me. If I need some help, you help me out.

So my charity was tied to that.

And yes, Big B and I, we had a conversation shortly after. I’ve been to his house, we’ve talked many times. I don’t know how far he wants this to go out. I don’t know if he’s ever spoken about it, so I won’t speak too much in detail. But we had brilliant conversations after this.

I wish I hadn’t said [what I said then] because again, he’s someone who’s done so much work and I feel like what I felt about what he said should have been taken care of in-house, because we could’ve straightened each other out with a phone call without being on the record, or being on a record.

Q: Do you think black celebrities have a duty to be a little more vocal?

A: No, I don’t believe in that. I never did. I think the way that people view celebrity is unfair. Everyone should be filling in and doing their part because it isn’t about money. It’s not.

That doesn’t solve it. I think that everyone should check our compassion and our empathy. That’s the thing that’s going to happen, that we all check in, and we get in touch with our compassion and empathy cause that is the solution.

And until we get into that place, things like this will continue to happen. We’re still on basic problems. This is like, you’re white, I’m black. I mean, there are so many different levels of all the complexities of things we have to get through as a human race, and we’re still on basic levels.